The Grammarphobia Blog

Burial ground

Q: We recently went to a service at Arlington National Cemetery, where ashes were placed into an above-ground niche in the Columbarium. The verb “inter” doesn’t seem to work here (the niche isn’t in the earth). What is the correct word?

A: The verb “inter” does indeed have earthly roots. It’s ultimately derived from the medieval Latin interrare—the prefix in- plus terra (earth).

But in English, the verb “inter” and the noun “interment” can properly be used in connection with burial in any kind of tomb—mausoleum, crypt, or columbarium niche.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines “inter” this way: “To place in a grave or tomb; bury.” And Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has “to deposit (a dead body) in the earth or in a tomb.”

The Oxford English Dictionary also says the verb “inter,” dating back to the early 1300s, means “to deposit (a corpse) in the earth, or in a grave or tomb; to inhume, bury.”

And a tomb needn’t be under ground. Among the definitions of “tomb” in the OED is this one: “A monument erected to enclose or cover the body and preserve the memory of the dead; a sepulchral structure raised above the earth.”

As long as we’re defining terms, Merriam-Webster’s says “columbarium” can mean either “a structure of vaults lined with recesses for cinerary urns” or an individual recess in such a structure.

The word “columbarium” is more poetic than it sounds. It comes from Latin, in which columbarium means “dovecote” and columba means “dove.”

The point is that it would be quite normal to speak of cremated remains “interred” in a niche at Arlington National Cemetery’s Columbarium.

However, many people who are in the funeral business or operate cemeteries prefer different words for this. They often use the terms “inurn” (to put in an urn), “inurned,” and “inurnment.”

For example, a publication called “Administrative Guide to Information and Burial at Arlington National Cemetery” uses the terms “inurn” and “inurnment” for placement of urns into niches at the Columbarium.

On the other hand, the publication uses “inter” and “interment” for burials in the ground (of either caskets or cinerary urns).

The verb “inurn” may sound like industry jargon, but it’s actually been around for quite a while. In fact, the OED’s earliest written example is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In the citation, which we’ve expanded upon, Hamlet asks the Ghost why the sepulcher “Wherein we saw thee quietly enurn’d, / Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws.”

The OED says “inurn” means “to put (the ashes of a cremated body) in an urn.” Hence, Oxford says, by transference it means “to entomb, bury, inter.”

The noun form of “inurn” (“inurnment”) didn’t show up until the mid-20th century and has an unpleasantly officious ring, in our opinion.

Here are the OED’s citations for “inurnment”:

1934: “Olivet Memorial Park provides every service for Entombments, Inurnments, Interments” (an ad cited in an article in the journal American Speech).

1948: “Normal disposal is by inhumement, entombment, inurnment or immurement, but many people … prefer insarcophagusment” (from Evelyn Waugh’s comic novel The Loved One).

In summary, the choice is up to you—“inter” or “inurn.” However, Shakespeare or no Shakespeare, we prefer “inter.”

Check out our books about the English language